Eva on steering Visa in Kenya


Eva Ngigi Sarwari is the country manager of Visa. PHOTO | POOL


  • After 15 years in the banking industry, Eva now sits at the apex of the global payment platform in Kenya.
  • This personable professional exhibits a rare combination of warmth and stealth, saying only as much as she needs to.
  • Notably, she has maintained some of the relationships she built in the banking industry.

Eva Ngigi-Sarwari, the country manager of Visa, wants the world to know she is living her purpose a day at a time.

After 15 years in the banking industry, Eva now sits at the apex of the global payment platform in Kenya, a role she took up in September last year. South Sudan and Somalia markets too fall under her jurisdiction.

This personable professional exhibits a rare combination of warmth and stealth, saying only as much as she needs to.

Though her LinkedIn account describes her as an “outgoing personality,” Eva tells me she is “an extremely private person.”

Which makes me wonder: to what extent has her personality propelled her to her role at Visa? “Quite significantly,” she says. “I push through what I believe in with a lot of passion.”

Leaders in her life have had a role in her steep incline as well, sometimes by “pulling me out of my comfort zone” and flinging her to the deep end.

Eva is a keeper. Notably, she has maintained some of the relationships she built in the banking industry. Have these taught her anything about herself? “That I’m a harsh critic,” she admits. “I always want to be better than the last conversation.”

She has also learnt to be less hard on herself. “Reflection is a key component of my life at this stage.” What stage is that? “I just turned 40,” she says.

Eva is inclined to fast business that allows for impact assessment. “Conversations that go beyond six months bog me down. Mergers and acquisitions aren’t my thing.”

She got into the information services space at an early age and dreamed of a position that would help her to make a difference. But heading a multinational before 40 was never in the cards.

“I knew my business degree would land me a decent job, and I knew I would work my way from there,” she says.

What is her job description and how differently does she lead? “I’m responsible for client relationships as well as market engagement for our stakeholders. I’m also part of Visa’s leadership in the region. I value inclusion because I believe everyone has something critical to offer. To nurture loyalty, the team must feel that their views matter.”

On moments that turned the screw in her life, motherhood tops the list.

“Having my firstborn son in my mid-20s gave me a clearer perspective of what I wanted to do. Immediately after I went back [to school] for my MBA because I wanted to build my career as I raised him.”

At 30, her second son came. Eva had changed jobs, further complicating the balance between family and career. “Every step of this [journey] has made me bolder. I wanted to be a good role model to my children and to give them the best opportunities,” she says.

Now with two sons and a daughter, aged between 14 and five, Eva is currently in the deep sea of parenthood.

Her recruitment was done remotely deep in the pandemic. I am curious to know what it was like to take up a new role at a time of a global crisis. Eva observes that when the world went on lockdown, payment platforms such as Visa kept it alight.

“Trade continued thanks to digital payments. Part of my job at Visa has been to promote consumer awareness on the security, safety and reliability of digital payments,” she adds.

To do this, the company has had to promote absorption of contactless payments among small and medium-sized merchants, a journey she says has only started, fuelled by shifting consumer behaviour.

“Buyers have embraced contactless payments more, but we need to continue reassuring them and improving their transaction experience,” Eva says.

Despite the evolution of payment methods globally, cash still dominates in Kenya, accounting for more than 85 percent of all transactions. How does Visa hope to bring cash users into their fold?

“We’re in an ecosystem where mobile money and card (use) can co-exist. We all need to compete against cash and to displace it from the economy,” she says, noting that printing cash is an expensive undertaking. “Cash is also riskier to carry around. There’s also no audit trail.”

By embracing contactless payments, Eva says e-commerce would rise and eliminate merchants’ over-reliance on footfall in stores.

For someone who was hired remotely, telecommuting has been a big part of Eva’s role. She admits she has been more productive in the current set-up “although I dislike having to wear headphones all day.”

“We have a hybrid system where groups alternate between the office and home. I take advantage of my week to be in the office,” she says.

Eva does acknowledge, however, that engaging partners in the current arrangement has been a difficult terrain to navigate “especially in forging relationships based on personal touch.”

Does she ever feel out of touch with her team, less in control? “No,” she says. “Thankfully, we had mechanisms to facilitate seamless integration and to protect the bond. Our communication channels continue to exist in terms of clarity of strategy, accountability and assessment,” she says.

Control and influence are not at risk, she says. “I’m not about hierarchy but building and deepening relationships so that I’m able to execute and that my team is also able to deliver on expectations.”

An affable persona, networks and family are Eva’s most intimate possessions.

“I like the good life,” she reveals laughing heartily, her guard now down. “[We] like to accumulate land and property. Cars, though, are my weakness.” Visiting Jamaica is an item on her bucket list.

Any anxieties that she has constantly suppressed to stay grounded? “The impostor syndrome,” she confesses. “I used to be scared, thinking I’m not good enough. I’m slowly getting comfortable in the space,” she says. To address her anxieties, Eva is reading Adam Grant’s book ‘Think Again.’

As a woman leader, she says there are instances when she has been treated differently. “I’d applied for a role when I was expecting my son. The hiring manager later said if he had known I was expecting, he wouldn’t have appointed me. That stung.”

There have also been pay inequalities and loss of opportunities “because [as a woman] you don’t make time to network and position yourself for them.” She says she doesn’t regret these losses. “It’s an unfair system,” she says.

So, what mistakes by past and current women leaders is she hoping to avoid? Failure to delegate and seeking to match male counterparts, she insists. “A woman tries to be a ‘super-mum’ by being the ever-present wife and mother and heroine in the society. We can’t do it all. Pay for help to take a load off your shoulders.’’

Be fair to everyone who needs your attention. “You can’t deliver fully when you give half attention to different areas.” Additionally, “Embrace your style of leadership, however unpopular it might be.”

That money is an enabler is her biggest lesson after 15 years in the financial sector. “Money doesn’t define you or guarantee tomorrow.”

It has also taught her to make bold decisions. “If you feel you’re ready to own a home, find out what a mortgage would cost. Make practical decisions and don’t keep up with [others]. Get into debt only when you’re clear about how you want to spend the money. Pay it off as soon as you can.”

Acquiring wealth is not out of reach regardless of your income, she says. “But first, pay yourself.”

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